Searching is the latest in a small series of movies which take place entirely on screens. The visual field through which a viewer navigates is intelligently composed of applications, files, webpages, and webcam images. The film even begins with a montage inspired by Pixar’s Up (2009), tracking a young girl’s initial interactions with the internet: first day of school, first piano recital, first prank on her father, first Facebook account; finishing in an inventively mawkish sequence in which the girl’s mother, Pam (Sarah Sohn), succumbs to lymphoma, all recorded on and stored in their devices.
The young girl is Margot (Michelle La), who lives with her widower father David (John Cho) amiably enough but in a state of emotional disconnection. One day, Margot doesn’t come home after a study group meeting. David delays in phoning her in as a missing person, believing her to be with friends on a camping trip. But she did not go camping. Finally reporting her absence to the police, he begins trawling, searching, through her laptop for clues as to where she might be; just as, in a cinema seat, a viewer might scan a frame three or four times over for the slightest suggestion of evidence.
This is compulsively watchable and well-paced stuff, zippily directed by Aneesh Chaganty, who has an astute understanding of the ways virtual records can distort reality. The challenge of one person’s attention against the internet’s mass of information is an interesting one, but it’s also where the film’s problems start. For instance, it’s difficult for the main players to really inhabit their performances, as, for almost the entirety of the runtime, they are simply in a corner of the screen while a browser is being searched. For another, it’s easy to become irritated by the sound design, which says, “look at this! Here! Clue!”, where it need not.
Then there’s the hairpin turn ending, which doesn’t even come close to landing. But while the mystery resolves unsatisfactorily, Searching remains, for the most part, a convincing portrait of the internet as a universe of estrangement.
Image: Aubrey Gemignani via Wikimedia Commons